One Sunday night, while a new acquaintance was talking about the provenance of the French pumpkin in one corner of the room, a friend and I, in another corner, were talking about food. What do you regularly cook? What’s your go-to Youtube food channel? Is Italian seasoning racist? This friend, who later that night baked glorious chocolate chip cookies for us from a stash of frozen dough, then pointed me to the direction of what would be my obsession for the following weeks to come.
This new obsession is the 6.89-million-subscriber-strong Youtube channel of Dianxi Xiaoge, a.k.a. Apenjie, a “local Yunnan girl” who makes videos primarily about her village in the Chinese highlands, where she cooks with seasonal ingredients and traditional techniques.
Since this discovery, I have been indoctrinated to a new religion. As the Hozier anthem goes, to keep the goddess on my side, she demands a sacrifice. The sacrifice isn’t too much, just my precious insomniac hours, as I find myself tunneling down Apenjie’s vast archive until the wee hours. (She uploads on Wednesdays.) I do often find myself on the threshold of dreaming, with the music of flash-frying spices or Apenjie rhythmically hacking at a bamboo shoot.
The first video of Apenjie’s I saw (it must have been the hairy tofu episode with 33 million views) was nothing short of a revelation. My friend introduced Apenjie’s videos as immaculately produced, with a minimalist aesthetic. Indeed this aspect of her videos is mesmerizing; the ASMR sounds of fresh, crunchy vegetables tumbling, the gentle splashing of clear water, and the rustling of leaves in the perceptibly cool mountain breeze do wonders to my serotonin levels. Someone should put this in a pill.
The Apenjie revelation is more than an awakening of the physical senses, but an acute eye-opening perspective about a radically different kind of life. I guess it’s also a kind of pleasant tonic to lockdown blues, to be shown a life spent in the idyllic outdoors, enjoying organic food with family and friends. The spirit of community! At some point I did wonder how any of this is even real, that self-reflexive hit of metropolitan cynicism. It only takes Apenjie’s holler to Dawang the giant husky to pull me right back into the haze of this gastronomic utopia.
How does Apenjie know all of these things? One episode she’s picking wild mushrooms, knowing precisely which ones are edible, even the ones you’d 100% bet are noxious or at least lowkey hallucinogenic, and another episode she’s harvesting wild honey with the on-screen caveat: Don’t gather honey from random flowers. As if we’d actually dare! Is everyone in Yunnan a living encyclopedia of altitudinal agriculture and livestock? Or maybe we’re all just dumb and hopeless and sad?
So the other night, after an unusually massive hunk of tofu turned up at home, I thought I’d pull a Dianxi Xiaoge and turn it into as many dishes as possible for dinner. I came up with a measly two but, hey, all’s well that ends well. Half of the tofu I flour-coated and deep-friend. For maximum surface area that the flour can cling onto for a crispy coating, I made checkerboard incisions on the matchbox-sized tofu chunks, like I’ve seen Apenjie do with fish. To dip in, I finely chopped some garlic and ginger, and added that to a solution of vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and chili flakes. The other half of the tofu I cut into cubes, and allowed it to simmer in a simple ssamjang stew with potatoes, cucumber, and green beans.
It was nothing like a Dianxi Xiaoge-grade feast, but it was nonetheless delicious. That night I was happy and satisfied.
Header image: Dianxi Xiage makes stuffed trotters. Yum!